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18th Feb 2013

Country snapshot: United Arab Emirates

In countries like the US and UK, the higher education sector has always been a source of national pride and investment able to draw foreign students fairly naturally and elegantly. By contrast, the new higher education hubs emerging in other parts of the world have had to act quickly, assertively, and without precedent in building their educational infrastructures and brands. Much is at stake, so the hope for these new markets – such as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – is to balance speed with an emphasis on quality and focus. Today, we look at what is currently going on in the United Arab Emirates as it relates to these issues.

Quick facts


: Abu Dhabi Population: 8.3 million Language: Arabic Ethnic groups: Indians, Pakistani, Western, Arabs. Emirati compose only 16% of the total population. Most residents are expatriates, who are not eligible for state-run schools, which is a main factor in the boom in private schools in the UAE. Notable fact: Of more than 200 international branch campuses in the world in 2012, 39 were located in the UAE, making the UAE home to more branch campuses than any other country worldwide.

Education sector

Elementary and secondary

: More than 2,000 schools operate in the UAE, with the private sector growing by leaps and bounds. Dubai’s private education sector alone spans 148 schools offering 13 different curricula to more than 210,000 students. Private schools are reported to have generated US $1 billion (Dh 3.52 billion) in tuition fees last year, and tuition fees are increasing rapidly (average increase of 4.5% last year). Of the 148 private schools in Dubai, only 32 operate on a not-for-profit or non-commercial basis. Almost a quarter (24%) of Dubai’s total private school students are enrolled in 19 schools operated by GEMS Education, the largest private school operator in Dubai. For an absolutely fascinating look at the private school boom in the UAE, please see this video produced by the BBC. Higher education: Three public higher education institutions serve the seven Emirates through several campuses. There are many private institutions, and technically, they are required to have licensure and accreditation from the federal accrediting body, The Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA). But several Emirates have developed "free zones"- “free” because they allow the organisations operating within them to run without federal regulation. The free zones were originally developed in the early 2000s to attract foreign educational institutions, part of the ambition of two Emirates in particular – Abu Dhabi and Dubai – to become educational hubs. Market size: According to a recent report by Alpen Capital, the total number of students in the region is expected to grow from 9.5 million in 2010 to 11.3 million in 2020 at a compounded annual growth rate of 1.8%.

The education sector is now a serious priority for the government.

In the budget for the fiscal year 2010, the education sector was given top priority – about 22.5% of the total national budget of Dh 43.6 billion has been allocated to the education sector, according to Mr Ahmed Mohammed Al Midfa, Chairman of the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Educational hubs: According to Global Higher Education, these are the main distinctions of Abu Dhabi and Dubai:

  • Abu Dhabi: “… not as aggressive as Dubai in seeking to attract foreign institutions, choosing a more targeted approach of attracting and investing in institutions with recognisable names. At present, both the Sorbonne (France) and New York University (USA) operate campuses in UAE's capital city. NYU accepted its first class of students in fall, 2010. Abu Dhabi seeks to capitalise on the presence of these elite education institutions to develop itself into a hub of ideas.” Recently, various agreements between government and semi-government agencies in Abu Dhabi and Japan have been signed in the fields of education, research and studies, among other areas.
  • Dubai: “… has garnered a great deal of international attention for the aggressive pursuit of international branch campuses (IBCs)…. Rather than solely investing in their own system, various sub-hubs within Dubai have targeted the development of IBCs to provide a diverse set of educational opportunities to the local expatriate population, as well as attract foreign students to study in Dubai. Presently, more than 25 IBCs (representing 13 different national curriculums, e.g., American, Australian, British, Russian) provide undergraduate and graduate degrees in Dubai. The IBCs are spread across four different free zones."

New developments

The growth of the higher education market in Dubai, especially, is astounding. The number of students enrolled in higher education institutions in Dubai increased by 10% in 2011–2012, according to a recent Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) report, “The Higher Education Landscape in Dubai 2011.” The report put the total number of students enrolled in Dubai’s tertiary education sector at 43,212, compared to 39,127 the previous year. Opportunities abound in three education areas in particular:

  • Vocational training: Long considered to be a weak and under-prioritised part of the UAE’s educational offerings, vocational training may be on the up and up in the country thanks in part to new demand. Recently, one of the three federal universities (Higher Colleges of Technology) raised its entrance standards to match those of the other two, resulting in a larger number of overall applicants for university being turned down. Those rejected are turning to the Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute (Adveti), which has been busily expanding for months to new locations.
  • Activity in the “free zones”: In 2011, the majority of students in Dubai attended institutions outside the free zones, despite the free zones accounting for 60% of Dubai's 52 institutions. It seems that less legislation did not in fact drive demand, as students were turned off by the possibility that their credentials would not be accepted in the rest of the world after graduation. But new government legislation, Resolution 21, now grants KHDA authority to certify academic degrees from private institutions in the free zones. This means qualifications obtained by students at Dubai's free zone institutions will now be recognised by employers in both the private and public sectors.
  • Private provision: To meet enrolment targets and to continue its mission of becoming a global education hub, the UAE will require more and more schools and capacity, and much of these will be privately funded and run. Follow this link to see demand for new private schools in Abu Dhabi and here for more on the global trend of increased private provision of education.

As lucrative and interesting as the UAE appears to the rest of the world as an education hub intent on attracting branch campuses and international students, it seems the country is also being cautious about quality control as it expands its educational capacity. For example, in Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), only 17 new universities have been accepted out of more than 178 applications since 2006. And, as Science Guide reports, not one university was accepted into DIAC in 2011. They quote Ayoub Kazim, of the Investments' Education Cluster in Dubai, explaining:

“Newly established branch campuses must ensure they have the backing of solid market research and in-depth regional knowledge in order to put well-defined objectives in place. Coupled with support from the parent university, branch campuses must ideally start operations in an incubation setting, with a focus on specific areas of expertise such as the most reputable programmes. This will enable the institution to establish itself and ensure measured and consistent growth.”

As we reported in the article, “International branch campuses: this is the year to hit pause before go,” slow and steady - with an emphasis on quality - seems to be the motto of the year even in the most ambitious of the new global education hubs.

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